Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Laura, won't you give me a dime?


I promised I'll be back reviewing in May. Currently, I am in desperate need of discipline (cough: university :cough) so simply have to get my priorities straightened out. I'll be back soon, and in the meantime, enjoy Laura. The most sinister pop song I've ever heard.

Align Centre

Friday, 9 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes: From Here to Eternity


Spoilers abound. Be warned.

I am happy to say that tonight’s episode of Ashes to Ashes was probably the finest hour of television I’ve seen this year. To be even more breathlessly hyperbolic, I’ll go further and say it’s my favourite episode of Ashes to Ashes so far. This episode deserves hyperbole.

The opening minutes are marvellously surreal, and it’s clear from the get-go that there’s something plastic about Gene Hunt’s Billy Joel impression. As he mimes ‘Uptown Girl’ and prances around a garage, you quickly get an impression of just how weird the episode is going to be.

And weird it is. The photography in this episode is startlingly beautiful, and of particular note are some subtle fades from pitch darkness to stars that surround the characters. I was struck by a exhilarating sense of scope, and both fascinated and frustrated by the sense that there are things going on that are, as of yet, are impossible for me to understand.

However, the strangeness of it all isn’t off-putting. The surreal moments occupied the fringes of the narrative, which dealt with a lonely-hearts killer with a gruesome calling card: branding his victims with a crescent moon.

In this episode, Ashes achieved what it has often failed to do in the past – it successfully meshed the over-arching story with the crime-of-the-week. When Alex digs up a file on a dead young girl in her search for a pattern to the crimes, Gene bluntly tells her he was the officer in charge of the case and that he failed to find the killer. Clearly remorseful, he attended the girl’s funeral. The whole moment was handled so deftly there wasn’t any expression that this display of sympathy was out of character. Gene Hunt, famous for being an alpha-male, does have a soft side.

(Coincidentally, the murdered girl reminded me of Laura Palmer. Probably the pasty skin. But I won’t go into that right now.)

This was, in a sense, Shaz’s episode. The focus was her anxieties about her position in the police force, and her growing conviction that it wasn’t the right place for her to be. However, the further along the episode went the more I got the sense that Shaz’s wavering convictions were being used to test Gene’s reaction to the threat of her departure. She was a sort of cipher, a means of displaying an aspect of Gene’s role in ‘his Kingdom’ that was previously unseen.

After escaping from a life-endangering situation at the climax of the episode, Shaz runs instantly to Gene. He puts his arm around her, holding her and seeming curiously paternal. In the end scene at the Ashes to Ashes staple-set - Luigi’s bar - Shaz is smiling and dancing. Only a few hours before, she was close to becoming the next victim of a serial killer. There is something sinister about the effect Gene had on Shaz, as if by persuading her to withdraw her resignation he is manipulating rather than encouraging her.


The focus on Gene’s relationship with Shaz was echoed in his interactions with Alex. Just as Shaz was dissenting by displaying wavering faith in the police force and her role in it, Alex is dissenting by probing into the case of Sam Tyler. This doubling was evoked in the episode’s oddly sinister imagery. Darkness closed around Shaz’s face immediately after Gene persuaded her not to resign. The same effect was used on Alex after Gene warned her to stop investigating Tyler’s death, the crucial difference being that – in Alex’s case - the darkness quickly vanished in a flare of light. I got the sense that Shaz is beyond saving, I only wish I knew what she needed to be saved from.

Although I talk obsessively about the mysteries and character-dynamics that appeared in this episode, there was a lighter side. The scenes involving the Crescent Moon dating agency provided plenty of laughs (especially when Alex spontaneously invented speed-dating), and Gene Hunt had plenty of the excellent one-liners he is famous for (“maid in the living room, cook in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom”).

However, the main interest here (for me at least) was the layers that are being added to the story. Gene Hunt did sometimes have the tendency to seem somewhat 2D, a caricature of chauvinism and prejudice with no depth to him beyond his witticisms. This episode questioned that assumption, namely by juxtaposing Alex’s dream-version of Gene (as a camp, wholly artificial Billy Joel stand-in) with the real-Gene, sitting in his office and sifting reluctantly through a mound of paperwork.

There was a strong sense here that the mysteries of both Ashes and Life on Mars are starting to come together, and I can’t wait to watch as the jigsaw is assembled.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Doctor Who: Waiting for the Man


It's been too long since we last had proper Doctor Who. I don't mean to dismiss the specials that were broadcast sporadically over 2009, it's just that real Doctor Who belongs in the Saturday tea-time slot, and should appear in that slot punctually for thirteen weeks in a row. When that rule is broken, it's never quite the same.

The Doctor is back with a new body, this time that of Matt Smith, a young actor wittily referred to as a 'Time Lad' by the press. Smith is brilliant, and has blown away all the fears I had upon learning of his casting. He's quirky in a dazed, muddled sort of way loping around and gazing at his surroundings as if he's seeing the world for the first time.

All his senses are new to him again, something particularly well illustrated when young Amelia Pond obediently fetches him a variety of foodstuffs - from apples to baked beans - only for him to spit out the half-chewed food in disgust. It would seem the new Doctor is somewhat picky when it comes to his meals.

Amelia Pond is the first character we see, a little girl with flaming hair and a Scottish accent who is praying that Santa Clause (at Easter, by the way) will repair the crack in her wall. You see, Amy's would very much like the voices that can be heard through her wall to stop.

The Doctor, her knight-in-blue box, promptly arrives in her garden and gets on the case, sealing the crack before rushing back to his time machine. He tells Amy he will be back for her in five minutes, before climbing back into the TARDIS and disappearing. Amy races off and packs a suitcase, pulling on a coat and a hat before returning to the spot where she last saw the Doctor. She sits on her suitcase, waiting for a saviour who never comes.

Fast-forward twelve years, and the TARDIS appears again in exactly the same spot. The problem with time-travel is that its generally quite disorientating for everyone involved. When the Doctor comes face-to-face with Amelia Pond in the form of a leggy strippogram, he is understandably confused.

The central plot of this story - The Eleventh Hour - is quite slim and is undermined by some poorly realized special effects. The CGI has a watery look to it, and the central monster of the episode is a giant eye that travels by snowflake. The main strengths here are Steven Moffat's breezy, hysterically funny script and the acting from Smith, Gillan and Caitlin Blackwood, who plays Amy Pond as a young girl. All three are nothing less than fantastic, embodying their characters eccentricities and frustrations to a tea.

There is a wonderful fairy-tale atmosphere throughout. The run-down garden the TARDIS materializes in at the start of the episode looks like it might harbour a legion of fairies, and the quintessentially English village of Leadworth that forms the setting for the episode makes a refreshing change from London. There is heavy stereotyping going on (quaint post-office, thatch cottages, everyone knowing everyone else) but stereotypes do exist for a reason and although my experiences as a country-dweller differ, I can allow Mr. Moffat a measure of creative license.

The episode ends with Amy's joining the Doctor, entering the TARDIS as the episode reaches a crescendo of joy and excitement. The last shot is a slow pan over Amy's room. It starts off by showing Amy's childish drawings of her and the 'Raggedy Doctor' she had adventures with in her imagination, before the camera tilts up to reveal a wedding dress. If it wasn't excessively lazy to recycle titles, 'The Runaway Bride' would make a great title for episode two.

Bring on next week, and the true start of Amy's adventures.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Ashes to Ashes: I'll Be Watching You

Ashes to Ashes has a brilliant new opening line - 'I'm Alex Drake, and frankly your guess is as good as mine."

Before it was broadcast, this episode had the uber-fans who inhabit the safe-house of The Railway Arms chewing their nails in fear. A clip had been released of everyone's favourite neanderthal, Gene Hunt, restoring our comatose heroine, Alex, to consciousness with a hard slap to the face. Understandably, this provoked wide-spread horror. Thankfully, all the fears proved to be unfounded; Gene apoligzed for shooting Alex in his gruff, couldn't-care-less manner, and looked heartwarmingly pensieve at several points when her name was mentioned. Be-still my Gene/Alex shipping heart.

The previous series left viewers on a collosal cliff-hanger, after being shot in her (potential) dream world of 1982, Alex Drake was sent into a coma within a coma which saw her 'waking up' in what appeared to be 2008, her 'present'. This series - the third and final of the run - picks up exactly where the last left off, with Alex discussing her 'dreams' of the 1980s to a psychiatrist. This is somewhat ironic considering that Alex is a police psychiatrist, and is hold-no-bars when it comes to reminding others of her superior psychological training. Things get really confusing if you consider that the whole exchange with the psychiatrist is the invention of Alex's mind, for the conversation suddenly becomes a dialogue between Alex and Alex.

But let's not go into that for now.

The whole opening sequence is dizzying, mainly due to the way it was shot. The very first sight the viewer sees is an extreme low angle view of some dark, glass plated skyscrapers, which mirrors a similar shot that appeared at the start of the series. For the most part the psychiatrist's voice is disembodied, the camera lingering persistently on Alex's face. The backgrounds are kept in soft focus, and the start of the scene with the psychiatrist features Alex isolated in the midst of a pitch black backdrop that gradually gains some swathes of colour.


Alex is eventually jolted back to reality by that not-very-tender ministration of Gene Hunt. He drops a set of clothes he brought her on her stomach, ignoring the fact that was precisely where he shot her. A few very awkward dialogue scenes later, and they're back in CID looking into the case of Dorothy Blonde, a young girl who has been kidnapped for ransom. As tends to be the case with Ashes, the 'story-of-the-week' isn't particularly engaging, and borders on the forumlaic: the step-mother is deceitful, and a religious nut is swiftly proven to be the kidnapper. Ashes is best when it is focused on its characters and over-arching mysteries, and thankfully both of these strengths are displayed well here. Little Dorothy - who even wore a gingham dress - is mainly of interest on account of her name and appearance. The only missing ingredient was a pet dog called Toto.

Things have changed in CID since the previous series. DS Ray Carling is now a DI, who despite his best efforts cannot make Gene take him seriously ('if you come in my office again dressed like a maths teacher, I'll paint your balls the colour of hazelnuts and tell the squirrels winter is coming.') Chris has split up with a increasingly frustrated and resentful Shaz, who was returned to tea-duty in the wake of Alex's shooting ('you made things better then you left us ... now I'm back making bloody tea and biscuits.')


There is also a new addition to the team, in the decidedly unpleasant form of Jim Keats. Early on in the episode, he is astonishingly likable. He has large, sad eyes and Buddy Holly glasses, and looks like he was designed to be a target for school-yard bullies. He speaks in a nasally voice and makes strained attempts to be friendly, passing a bottle of wine to the cops in CID as if they have rabies. However all of this is undermined by his brief appearance to Alex as she lies comatose in her hospital bed in the first stretch of the episode. His face hovers uncomfortably close to the camera, as he addresses her urgently ('look at what he's done to you ... He did this to you and I don't want history to repeat itself.') He acts like a cross between a cryptic prophet and a stalker, and puts his sinister side on full show in a nasty confrontation with Gene at the climax of the episode.

As is to expected with Ashes, nostalgia abounds. There are references to Tandys, primitive computers, video tape and a hit-parade soundtrack that features the likes of The Eurythmics and David Bowie. The final song in the soundtrack is The Police's stalker-ballad 'Every Breath You Take,' which plays as Keats sidles up Alex while Gene looks on.

The series' creators - Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoh - have promised that this series will wrap everything up, even those mysteries left open by Life On Mars. This episode ends with Alex discovering a file on a certain Sam Tyler, and all the pieces have now been laid for a stonking series.

Next Friday, be sure I'll be watching.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Wakey, Wakey, Drakey!


Ashes to Ashes returns to our screens tomorrow on BBC1 at 9 p.m.